The Biddy is one of the many customs associated with Saint Bridget, one of Ireland’s most revered saints in olden times.
Saint Bridget’s feast day falls on 1 February, which is also the first day of Spring. On this day nature was thought to awaken from its long winter slumber and prayers and invocations were made to Saint Bridget to bless the crops and to improve the fertility of man and beast!
On the eve of the feast day an effigy of Saint Bridget was made and taken into each home to bring good luck. The young people would then travel about the neighbourhood with the effigy proclaiming the news the Saint had arrived in the locality. These were known as Boidógs or Biddys.
Both boys and girls take part and generally went in disguise. As a rule the boys dressed as girls and visa versa. Straw suits or masks were frequently used to enhance the disguise (see under straw boys). The Biddys received gifts of foodstuffs, butter, eggs and the like in each house and concluded their outing with a feast!
As time went on money was given instead of food and the simple feast developed into a “ball night” with drink as a dominant feature.
The Biddy was frequently constructed by using a peeled turnip to represent the head. The features were cut out and coloured with soot or any other colour available. The “head” was mounted on a broom handle, or churn dash, for ease of carrying.
A churn dash was preferred as it could stand independently. (A churn dash comprised of a handle with a flat wooden cross at one end, used to agitate or dash the milk when making butter.) The dash was then covered with an old skirt or cloth and stuffed with hay or straw to form the body.
The Biddys went from house to house providing entertainment by way of music, song or dance in exchange for money. The tradition of going on the Biddy to collect for a “ball nigh” has mostly been discontinued. Nowadays if the Biddys go out it is to collect for charity and they are more likely to ply the ancient craft in the public houses in the towns than in private homes.
Every year the Biddy is honoured in Kerry. The tradition goes way back
and was once part of the four ancient Celtic festivals along with Lá Bealtaine,
Lughnasa and Samhain.
St Bridget is one of Ireland's patron saints. It is said that she was born on February 1, 451AD at Faughart near Dundalk and died on February 1, 552AD. She was an early Irish nun and founder of several monasteries of nuns including that of Kildare.
The first record is of her dates from the 7th century. In many cases Christianity was assimilated into early Irish society through the Christianisation of pagan deities and places of worship. Therefore it may well be that the Celtic Goddess Brigid was transposed into the Christian Saint Bridget.
Brigid was the Goddess of inspiration, healing and smithcraft, she was also associated with fire, poetry and the hearth. Her festival of Imbolc (Imbolg) was Christianised to become St Bridget's day (Lá Fhéile Bhride). Imbolc (Old Irish i mbolg 'in the belly') is a Cross Quarter Day midway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox.
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